Using the Bible with Integrity

Kenneth Cauthen

This essay appears as Chapter Two in my Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 31-43. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of America. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce this essay must be sought from UPA, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706.
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe.[1] I suggest a theological version that I will call the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability. This law states that the Bible can be interpreted to make it compatible with nearly every conceivable doctrine. The greatest proof of the operation of this Law is that irreconcilable positions on nearly every theological and ethical question are extant, all of which claim to have the sanction of Scripture. The sublime form of the Law indicates that reasons can always be given to demonstrate that Jesus himself would have approved of the conclusions reached by a given individual or community. When the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability is in operation, it is nearly always accompanied by the Phenomenon of Total Surprise. I prefer the description of this Phenomenon in its "Lo and Behold" form: When individuals and groups find the Word of God in the Bible, the results, lo and behold, turn out to be identical with what they themselves believe!

The question I have repeatedly put to myself and to others in recent years is whether the Bible can be used with integrity. My answer is that it is possible and actually does occur. Nevertheless, joy is always warranted when it is observed. I have encouraged others to search with me for methods to increase the quality and frequency of probity in matters hermeneutical and exegetical. I have found my own way of being honest with Scripture by becoming a modernist. Perhaps my outlook would better be called neo-modernism, since I am addressing a situation quite different from that to which Christian modernism spoke seven decades ago.[2] Shailer Mathews is my Baptist and theological forefather, but I am not committed to everything he wrote during the first third of this century. His optimism about history is far too shallow for this more tormented age. His excessive reliance on science and his neglect of philosophy are weaknesses, to my mind. Yet his approach to the Bible, his understanding of Christianity as a religious-social movement, and his conception of theological method are worthy of re-examination.


Christian modernists initially take a stand not as believers belonging to the church but as selves existing in the world. They become Christians because that form of belief and practice offers the best hope of achieving the best life possible for themselves and others. Modernists employ only experience and reason to discover and evaluate truth. Typically, they are relativists and pluralists who recognize that it is their reason and their experience that are decisive. Hence, they do not make universal claims for their conclusions. Many modernists are also pragmatists whose final judgments about matters religious and ethical are made in terms of whether a given way of believing and behaving facilitates satisfactory coping with the challenges of living.

At they same time, they affirm as worthy of belief motifs central to the Bible because they contain permanent and indispensable value. What is precious in the Christian past must be reinterpreted in thoroughgoing fashion in order to rid tradition of what is awful and obsolete and in order to make the Gospel plausible to large numbers of modern persons. Twentieth-century modernism is primarily a method of approaching the Bible and Christian tradition. However, in its American Protestant versions it rejects elements fundamental to the orthodox vision of the Bible, God, and Jesus. Modernism also presents a critique of vague, inconsistent, and timid views of Scriptural authority found among present-day liberals. Some examples may be helpful.


Preachers, theologians, and exegetes who otherwise seem quite willing to make the words of Jesus an ultimate religious norm frequently find ways to qualify the eschatology of Matthew 25:31-46. How many fine sermons have we heard from liberal pulpits on the high ethical teachings urging service to the needy only to have verses 41 and 46 passed over as if they were not even there! Liberals, of course, generally do not believe in the everlasting punishment of the wicked. Can the ethics of Jesus in that passage be so totally separated from his eschatology? Historical critics may be able to persuade some that these are not the words of Jesus but an interpolation of the early church. The text itself puts this saying in the mouth of Jesus. Any reading to the contrary remains problematic. Besides, the doctrine is there, whatever the authorship.


Jesus' words about divorce have been the source of much unnecessary suffering and needless guilt when dogmatically and literally imposed as an absolute legal code (Matt. 5:31-32, 19:9; Mk. 10:2-12; Lk. 16:18). Some conservative interpreters who are willing to deliteralize some of the other "hard sayings" in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-42, e. g.) have turned legalist when reading Matt. 5:31-32. I grew up among Christians who followed that path. A person who felt the call to preach could be forgiven for most anything in his (descriptively correct!) past except divorce. I have heard converts on their way to ordination recite their sordid history before the Lord brought them to repentance, and the people rejoiced. But no pastoral call was issued to divorcees. Even as a child I never understood why this sin was almost unforgivable. Is any of the fault in the text itself? This passage, after all, reads like a specific obeyable law and not like an impractical absolute ideal.

Taking all three Gospels together, the teachings are: Divorce is contrary to the divine intention, and the marriage union is not to be broken for any reason (Mark and Luke), except when adultery has occurred (Matthew). Do the passages in Mark and Luke imply that divorce is never the best of available options under any circumstances? Surely that cannot be defended. Matthew allows divorce for men when the wife is guilty of adultery. Should not women have the same privilege if their husbands are unfaithful? Moreover, the idea that divorce may be allowed for adultery but not for constant cruelty, chronic neglect, and total abandonment and the like is morally indefensible in the light of the most realistic and compassionate perspective available to us.

Others, among them some liberals, have turned to textual analysis for help. Maybe the Matthean version (5:31-32, 19:1-12) that permits divorce only on grounds of adultery was an addition of the church. Another strategy is to suggest that maybe the Markan (10:2-12) and Lukan (16:18) versions state an absolute ideal, a goal, rather than a literal command, like the hard sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-48). This has much to commend it, but whether this is what Jesus intended is impossible to know. Fortunately, common sense, pastoral compassion, and human sensitivity have often mercifully found ways around these troublesome passages. Is there any interpretation of these texts that does not do violence either to the texts or to the highest moral consciousness? It is certainly difficult to harmonize everything that Jesus said about marriage and divorce in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For example, Matthew speaks of divorce for men only, while Mark mentions the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. In addition, what are we to do with the notion that all divorced persons who remarry are to be regarded as adulterers? Does that not imply an ontology of sex and marriage that, to say the least, is problematic for modern people? Most of us today do not have as part of our intellectual equipment the assumption that the union of a man and a woman in marriage establishes a permanent metaphysical reality that divorce (legal and spiritual) cannot negate.

In dealing with the reported words of Jesus on marriage and divorce, exegetes are at their worst and best. Even William Barclay is compelled to write in this connection, "It is now that we are face to face with one of the most real and most acute difficulties in the New Testament."[3] However, even here there is a way out, and Barclay finds it. (1) In Mark 10:11-12 Jesus is taking into account the fact that in Gentile law a woman could divorce her husband, whereas in the Matthean passage the Jewish law is the referent, in which a woman could not divorce her husband. (2) The Markan and Lukan versions in which no cause is sufficient to justify divorce give us the real Jesus and not Matthew, who allows divorce for a man because of adultery. (3) The teaching of Jesus in Mark and Luke, however, states an ideal and a principle, not a law. Thus, in the end Barclay resolves all the acknowledged difficulties to locate an interpretation that is true to Jesus and to a moral viewpoint he can affirm. The operative principle in Barclay appears to be that the words of Jesus are truth. Is Barclay then guided by that assumption to come up with an explanation that fits what we otherwise know or believe about Jesus, as well as Barclay's own idealism on the topic?

I do not disagree with his conclusions, i. e., that ideally marriage is a life-long union of husband and wife but that realistically sometimes divorce may be the better choice. Moreover, failures are to be dealt with greater sympathy and less condemnation. My only point is that his treatment illustrates the principle of hermeneutical adaptability, namely, that scholarship and exegesis combine to produce outcomes acceptable to the particular interpreter. The fact that other equally competent scholars and exegetes work with the same texts to produce a variety of contrary outcomes indicates the pronounced subjectivity of the hermeneutical enterprise. The objective content of the text enters into the determination of the outcome through the minds of the exegetes, of course, but the final and decisive factor is the interpretation, not the Bible. The interpreter is the functional arbiter of truth, however much Jesus or the Bible may be given credit for the normative doctrine that is affirmed by the exegete.

Moreover, are not other views equally plausible in light of the texts? For example, could not one agree that marriage is ideally permanent but that, since Jesus allowed it, divorce is permissible when adultery occurs, that being a special case? Or could not one take Jesus to mean that since marriage establishes an indissoluble ontological union, neither law nor practice can in fact bring about a divorce. It follows that anyone divorced by law is still married to the previous partner in reality and in the sight of God. Hence, the only way the partners can be free to remarry is to demonstrate that the requisite conditions that constitute marriage were not present, hence no real marriage ever occurred. In that case, an annulment might be ordered that recognizes that no divorce is required since no true marriage in the ontological sense existed. Which, if any, of these views were intended by Jesus cannot be determined with certainty. The texts do not interpret themselves. Some interpreter produces the final product that prevails in actual life.

Don't we all keep interpreting until we get the Scriptures, in so far as they contain the Word of God for today, to fit what we deeply believe or can live with? We do so usually on the basis of something in the Bible itself. I have heard a professed inerrantist make I Cor. 14:34 sound like an injunction for women to speak up any time they want! By situational interpretation and by determining the meaning of one text by reference to another, he deauthoritized that passage right before our very eyes![4] Some conservatives work hard to find some spiritual or medical lesson in the injunction not to boil a kid in its mother's milk (Deut. 14:21). The gift of performing hermeneutical miracles has been distributed among many doctrinal persuasions. The modernist suspects that the interpreter is the author of the outcome more than the text itself in these cases. Hence, when someone concludes, "Thus sayeth the Lord," the theological consciousness and moral sensitivity of the exegete are in actual fact the functional authority at work, regardless of the view of biblical inspiration held by the interpreter.


The permissibilility of faithful, loving relationships between persons of the same sex divides churches today. Some liberals who want to make the case for the legitimacy of homosexual love are trying to find biblical support for their views or at least to take the offense out of those passages that are used by conservatives to condemn gay sex as sinful.[5] In an article in The Christian Century John McNeil refers to recent scholarly works on the subject and concludes that "nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of a loving sexual relationship between two gay persons."[6] Perhaps this is sound exegetical reasoning, although Lev. 20:13 seems pretty plain. But suppose there were two hundred verses scattered through the Bible, including the Old and New Testaments and explicit words of Jesus unmistakenly condemning sexual relationships between gay men or between lesbian women, would that make it wrong? If there were four hundred verses that legitimize homosexual love, does that make it right? I answer "not necessarily" to both questions.

All attempts to get answers to the modern questions we ask of Scripture in this regard can at best yield only a limited degree of probability that can never be beyond dispute among competent scholars. Do we really know what various biblical writers or communities would have said about the kind of relationships among homosexuals for which McNeil seeks biblical approval or at least permission? Why should the morality of homosexual love be settled by the intent or content or context of the original texts rather than by theological reflection in which specific passages are measured by the highest ethical norms we know, having learned them from Scripture? At the same time it must be insisted that careful historical study and responsible translation and interpretation may be effective in showing how the prejudices of the past have themselves corrupted the meaning of the original texts. Devotion to the text can sometimes prevent misuse of the text and lead to interpretations that are not only more accurate but more humane.

While he does relativise particular passages of Scripture and insist that love is the only absolute moral norm, even a liberal like Norman Pittenger seems more anxious than necessary to deny that certain passages condemn homosexual practice.[7] Letha Scanzoni and Virginia R. Mollenkott are evangelical scholars who clearly conclude that loving, faithful homosexual relationships are proper, but they are quite cautious in dealing with the biblical texts.[8] I would prefer to say that it does not matter what particular passages on the subject of homosexuality say, if they are not in harmony with principles that facilitate justice and the highest possible fulfillment of persons in community. Yet I can see the pastoral relevance of showing the error or questionability of certain traditional interpretations of Scripture that are oppressive when one is dealing with a conservative gay Christian who is troubled by the fact the Bible seems to condemn homosexual practice. One must, however, be completely honest with the actual texts in doing so.

Today conservatives quote Leviticus against homosexuals as if these texts were the authoritative Word of God (Lev. 18:22, 20: 13). It does not seem to embarrass them that they conveniently ignore numerous other precepts in surrounding verses and chapters that do not serve their immediate interests, but which, presumably, should be equally binding. How many raise objection to hybrid cattle (Lev. 19:19)? Do they feel guilty when wearing garments containing more than one kind of fabric (Deut. 22:11)? Should they? Is it an abomination for women today to wear men's trousers (Deut. 22:5)? Would they also advocate that those caught engaging in homosexual acts should be put to death? The law of Leviticus does (20:13). Should heterosexuals who commit adultery be executed (Deut. 22:22)? Should fundamentalists allow women to teach an adult Sunday School class, some of whose members are men (I Tim. 2:12)? The text says women are to keep silent. In how many churches is this rule obeyed? Happily, it is generally ignored or creatively dismissed.

Are there any Christian exegetes, by the way, who personally believe that homosexual practice in loving fidelity is wrong but who do not think the Bible supports them on the issue? Or have the exegetes who, on textual grounds, try to weaken the biblical injunctions against it already decided on some other basis -- doubtless including something in Scripture itself -- that its prohibition is a cultural prejudice, not a moral truth? And is it not the case that conservatives who personally believe that homosexual sex is sinful find, lo and behold, that the Bible can be quoted to sanction their views. I do not accept the simple alternative view that liberals and conservatives assiduously study the Scriptures and then adopt as their own the views they find there that constitute the Bible speaking as the Word of God. It is much more complicated than that.


Are the words and deeds of Jesus as such the norm? If so, then everything he said and did must be normative. It does take a little imagination and maybe even a little fudging to make the not-so-nice initial response of Jesus to the Canaanite woman look good (Matt. 15:21-28). William Barclay has the tone of voice and sweet smile of Jesus take the insult out of his calling her a dog. Besides he used the word for cute, little household pets and not the one for big, ugly garbage heap mongrels.[9] Or maybe he was just testing her faith, and, anyway, he healed her daughter didn't he? Jesus apparently approves the vicious killing of the tenants by a householder who had been wronged and suggests that God will be equally harsh with those who do not honor the divine son (Matt. 21:33-46). Some time ago I heard a sermon on this passage. When the preacher came to the end of the story, he skipped verse 41 altogether.

What hermeneutical principles should guide us in dealing with the words of Jesus? Are they -- all of them -- the very definition of the highest and best in Scripture? Or are they to be judged by the highest and best in Scripture, like all other passages in the Bible? The outlook of Jesus reflects a historically-conditioned perspective that requires interpretation in the light of the final revelation defined by his role as the Christ. Hence, not everything the historical Jesus said or did -- assuming we can know for sure what he did say -- is necessarily expressive of the unity of God in Christ. It is also true, however, that the words and deeds of Jesus are the data we use to define the normative Christ by which specific words and deeds of the historical Jesus are in a reverse movement concretely judged. By normative Christ I mean someone's interpretation of what it is in Jesus that constitutes truth about God and human existence. As a modernist I would further urge that everything in Scripture, including the words and deeds of Jesus, must be judged by the highest and best we know from all sources. As Christians we will acknowledge that the Bible and Jesus are chief among the sources from which we have learned what is most excellent in the way of religious belief and moral practice.


The modernist view is that everything in Scripture must be judged by what is most excellent in its witness, and it is we the interpreters who decide that. Agape as the defining standard of God's character and actions and as the measure of human responsibility is not only the highest and best that is to be found in the Bible but is the normative guide to life here and now. I would urge that this form of love is the best that we know from all sources up to now. That is the reason it becomes our norm. Moreover, it is central to the New Testament vision of religion and morality. Agape seeks to meet the need and promote the good of the neighbor. Agape promotes justice for all and works to increase the well-being of all persons. It regards the neighbor as equal to oneself. Hence, homosexuality is to be judged by whether persons are damaged or edified by its practice, whether need is met and well-being is fostered, whether healthy and mutually supporting relationships are nurtured. The text of the New Testament is the indispensable source of the meaning of agape. Particular passages are relevant to the determination of its implications for morality but not necessarily determinative in specific instances. The apostolic witness to the requirements of the Christian life are historically and culturally conditioned, as are ours. Some interpreter has to make a judgment here and now about the matter and take responsibility for that judgment. This decision may differ from portions of the New Testament perspective. For example, Christians today must say something different about slavery, obedience to the state, and about women than do some passages in the canonical books.

This does not mean that careful and responsible exegesis is unimportant. Neither is the Bible dispensable once its zenith has been located. The whole of Christian belief is not to be reduced to a few central motifs stated in general terms, from which all else may be deduced here and now as the occasion arises. No advocacy is being made of theological act-situationalism, in which in every instance one appeals directly to abstracted normative principles unmediated through particular passages. Actually, that method might work out as well or better than a mere picking and choosing of passages or that we happen to agree with and calling them authoritative. The biblical treasure is to be found nowhere else than in its own concrete and diverse witness.

The love of God for the world and the love of God and neighbor required of us is the norm by which all is to be measured when Christian doctrine is to be articulated. The norm itself is derived from the particular expressions of human witness that compose the Bible. Moreover, both Testaments are rich with profound explorations of the human predicament and the divine remedy. The Bible is filled with marvelous testimonies to the divine character and purpose as humanly experienced. It abounds in eloquent pointers to a fitting response to God's initiative in creating, governing, judging, and redeeming the world. The images, insights, ideas, and portrayals of God and humanity expressed in narrative, poetry, parable, Gospel proclamation, moral exhortation, and in all the other varieties of witness and reflection constitute a great treasure indeed. This gold can be mined only by arduous and detailed examination and responsible interpretation.

The modernist approach furnishes a way to use the Bible that is completely honest. It eliminates the need to find procedures to make sure that we can claim the authority of that ancient document for beliefs and values that we find compelling. Yet we can also honor the Bible for the treasure it does contain in its witness to the love God has for us and to the love that God requires that we practice toward one another. Above all, it bids us take responsibility for our views. Let it be said plainly, however, that nothing in the Bible is authoritative merely because it is in the BIble or because Jesus said it. Authority resides in the fact that the biblical witness evokes acceptance by our reason in the light of our experience and all the relevant evidence we can bring to bear from all sources. The final verification is in terms of the capacity of biblical teachings to function salvifically in everyday life, not whether Scripture or Jesus authorizes them. There are, of course, other ways of using the Bible with integrity, but the modernist practice works best for me.


1. New York Review of Books (January 11, 1996), 10.

2. See my The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1962; reprinted, Washington: University Press of America, 1983), 26-37, 147-168, 188-206, for a description of modernistic liberalism in its earlier manifestation and for an account of two of its chief exponents -- Shailer Mathews and Henry Nelson Wieman, both members of the "Chicago school" of theology.

3. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), II:201.

4. A young candidate for ordination professing the inerrancy of Scripture came before a committee. I inquired if he believed that women should keep silent in the churches (I Cor. 14:34), since he believed that every word in the Bible was profitable for instruction. He answered in the negative and spent the next few minutes in a dazzling display of contextual interpretations, comparing passages with each other, etc. until in the end it appeared that Paul was actually encouraging women to speak up anytime they wanted! Even for the inerrantists it seems the Bible can be made compatible with whatever doctrine they feel is essential to truth and good practice. No matter what it says, it only means what we know it has to.

5. See, for example, John J. McNeil, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976), 37-66.

6. John J. McNeil, "Homosexuality: Challenging the Churches to Grow," The Christian Century (March 11, 1987), 242-246. McNeil refers to recent works by George Edwards, Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1984), and Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

7. See Gay Lifestyles (Los Angeles: The Universal Fellowship Press, 1977), 77-87.

8. See their Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).

9. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, II:120-122.

Kenneth Cauthen

I invite evaluations, criticisms, suggestions, and other responses.
My E-Mail Address
This is one of a series of essays on theology and ethics. For a complete list of topics and a link to all of them see:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

For something on the lighter side try my rewriting of some familiar Mother Goose Rhymes.

Mother Goose Goes Electronic

Created: Monday, April 01, 1996, 6:34:51 PM

Last Updated: Thursday, November 18, 1999., 10:15 AM